There is something magical about the coastline around the United Kingdom; surely one of the best in the world. Time and time again we’re drawn to the coast, as a place to connect with memories and take in the sea air. It’s a place that has shaped the identity of these islands and a place that attracts a mass movement of people during the long summer months.
This year the National Trust is celebrating 50 years since it launched its pioneering Neptune Coastline Campaign. At the heart of this five decade journey has been the work to protect special places along the coastline for everyone to enjoy. From the iconic White Cliffs to the golden sands of Rhossili the generosity and passion of people across the land has helped the Trust acquire 550 miles of coastline (taking the total owned to 742 miles).
The National Trust Magazine asked the Wainwright Prize longlisted authors to share with us some of their favourite areas and experiences of British coastline.
What is your favourite mile of British coastline?
Clare Balding: ‘My favourite coastline walk – and I’ve written about this so I’ll stay consistent – is Hope Cove to Salcome, and my favourite mile of it would probably be the half mile before Sawmill Cove and then the half mile after going up hill. Even though that hurts a bit. Fantastic coastline, great views and wonderful underfoot.’
Joanne Parker: ‘The South-West coast of Lundy Island, from Jenny’s Cove, down past Needle Rock and Old Light – seeing puffins, goats, black rabbits, and swathes of flowers on the way.’
Mark Cocker: ‘My favourite piece of coast is the shoreline around North Ronaldsay, the northern most of the Orkney islands. It is just 6km long and at the house where my wife was brought up, family legend has it that the Atlantic runs up to the backyard; yet from the front bedroom window one looks out towards the North Sea. Low, flat, windy and increasingly devoid of people (the school now has three children) North Ronaldsay is a place of flag-roofed crofts, grazing pasture and flower-rich meadows. You slowly realise that the magical atmosphere of this place resides in its three great modern absentees: a lack of artificial light, lack of mechanical noise and a lack of any need to know the time. Aside from the crofts of its 40 residents, its lighthouse, church and the laird’s traditional manse, North Ronaldsay is home to Orkney’s largest human artefact: the ‘sheep dike’. This stone wall encircles the entire shoreline and is there, not to keep the livestock in, but to retain its unique semi-wild sheep upon the beach. Many of these tiny creatures have coats the colour of polished mahogany and some of the kitten-sized lambs are pure black. The adults’ salt-loaded fleeces can look like tramps’ rags upon their backs. Yet the rams’ horns have sumptuous curls and when they clamber upon the rocks staring philosophically out towards an Atlantic horizon, they acquire a kind of dishevelled grandeur. Sitting among this Neolithic stock, listening to the seals sing from the breakers or watching porpoises across the bay I find it easy to shed the worries of the world. I am Derbyshire born and bred, but arriving on North Ronaldsay feels like a homecoming; leaving is tinged with a sense of loss.’
Philip Walling: ‘My favourite mile of British coastline is along the railway line that skirts the sands from Kirby-in-Furness to Foxfield Station on the Duddon Estuary in Cumbria.’
John Lewis-Stempel: ‘From where the estuary of the River Dyfi enters Cardigan Bay along to the north end of Borth village (specifically, to the butcher’s, the one that sells the dressed crab), the Irish Sea on the one side, Cors Fochno marsh on the other, the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales the backdrop. ‘
Adam Thorpe: ‘Contenders range from a stretch on the isle of Barra to cliffs in Penrith, but I’ll plump for Burnham Overy Staithe in north Norfolk, where the path takes you past tidal creeks, salt marshes and bristly sand dunes to miles of beach with a distant frill of sea and, almost always, a bracing wind.’
Philip Marsden: ‘It would have to be the section just to the south of Land’s End, with its other-worldly scale – sheer granite cliffs and blow-holes and the granite-block headlands of Pordenack and Carn Boel – then the white sweep of the beach at Nanjizal.’
Richard Askwith: ‘The south-west coastal path half-way between Porthgwarra and Land’s End: the perfect place for running.’
Oliver Rackham: ‘Helford River, Cornwall: one of the very few places where ancient woodland meets the sea.’
William Atkins: ‘It’s not a full mile, but the cliff walk between Lynton and the Valley of Rocks is close to my heart, with the Bristol Channel far, far below and Exmoor rolling away behind you to the south. It’s a region that was celebrated by the Romantics – Southey wrote a superlative ode to the Valley of Rocks (‘a huge terrific mass’) – and by R. D. Blackmore, who made it the abode of his white witch, Mother Meldrum, in Lorna Doone. For me the joys of this stretch are twofold – the view in winter as the light from the setting sun hits Hollerday Hill 800 feet above the sea; and the feral goats . . . In March, the slopes are busy with their rickety, demon-faced young, who’ve yet to develop the adults’ horror of humans. They have a Facebook page, of course: ‘The Lynton Goats’.
Tristan Gooley: ‘Putsborough Sands in North Devon. It’s savage.’
Helen Macdonald: ‘I’m torn between the red sandstone cliffs around the Dale Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, a place of dramatic winter seas and soaring choughs, and the shingle beach and marshy lagoons of Minsmere in Suffolk. Such different landscapes—I truly can’t choose between them.’
Could you write a paragraph about your favourite coastal memory/experience – your golden moment on the coast?
Clare Balding: ‘Probably walking barefoot from Holy Island, from Lindesfarne, to the mainland. Squelching through all that mud, putting my socks and boots back on and then heading down the Northumberland coast and into that sort of magical land of castles and rocks and white stags painted on rocks, beaches and lovely B&Bs.’
Joanne Parker: ‘It was the first time I’d ventured further into Scotland than Edinburgh and it had honestly looked no distance at all on the map. As we beetled along the final 30 miles of twisting single-track lanes that contort their way along the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, doubts and recriminations volleyed to and fro about my navigating, his driving, and the fact that our planned picnic had already been eaten. But when we arrived, crumpled and grumpy at Sanna Bay, we stepped into a glorious oasis of turquoise, white and gold. Sanna itself was deserted – except for an elderly couple skinny-dipping as the sky blushed into pinks and peaches. We swam, feeling as though we could easily reach the islands, Rhum, Eigg, and Muck, that shimmered out to sea. Afterwards we feasted on tinned peaches, crackers, and warm beer as we waited for the sun to set. When it finally blazed into the sea, I cried tears of frustration to find that there was no film left in my camera. Yet had I managed to capture something of that apocalyptically burning sky above the most westerly point of mainland Britain, its image would perhaps not burn so fiercely still in my mind, more than twenty years later.’
Philip Walling: ‘On the Solway Marshes: We had gone to look for the Herdwick gimmer hoggs that were wintering away on the Solway Marshes, as their ancestors had done every year for hundreds of years.
The high grey sky and the low flats of the brown estuary merged way out across the Firth. And the hills on the ‘Scotch side’ were close enough to touch across the remaining sliver of water, as they do before a storm, sometimes tempting foolhardy travellers over the treacherous sands.
The tidal runnels and channels were empty of water, but full of wet shining mud that would suck a man down to his doom if he tried to cross them. Our trudging was a formality to salve the conscience, because there was no chance of gathering up, or even counting the three hundred young sheep that grazed across the salty wastes, with the tide so far out.
The bank of cloud came quickly with the advancing tide and we had to move fast to out-run the water that was now rushing up the empty channels. But we couldn’t beat the salty mist that enveloped and soaked us. We came across a well-trodden path that appeared to lead away from the sea. The dogs were sticking close to our heels, subdued by something. Then suddenly, out of the mist, a great sandstone monument, surrounded by iron railings, appeared in the middle of these desolate marshes.
It marked the place where Edward the First of England had died on 7th July 1307 at the age of 68, while encamped with his army, preparing to dislodge Robert the Bruce from Carlisle Castle, five miles up the estuary.
It was poignant to find that a king of England should have died out here, on these marshes, on the edge of his kingdom, 800 years ago. They laid his body in the little church at Burgh-by-Sands, built on the line of the Roman Wall, with stones from it, and near to where another king of England, Arthur, had lived and died and had his kingdom. The inscription on Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey reads: Here is Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots, 1308. Keep Faith.’
John Lewis-Stempel: ‘Time does not erode; it builds sedimental layers of particulate memory. And is it really true that familiarity breeds contempt? Doesn’t it just engender a deeper love? We are in a running night tide of cars, the town names of Mid Wales (Penybont; Rhayader; Capel Bangor) flashing up like navigational buoys in the headlights – though I hardly need guidance, because I have done this journey as boy and man so many times I have lost count. There’s the place my father’s custard yellow Rover 2000 broke down, and we had to get stream-water for the radiator; there’s the bend where I saw a pine marten… We are driving to Borth on Cardigan Bay, because that’s where Herefordians go to the seaside on the August Bank Holiday. Always. We land at Borth’s top end, slide open the windows so that the dawn-creech of the herring gulls and the ionising air of the Irish Sea banishes the car-fug; then we drift along the town’s improbably long, one horse-street, playing the mirthful game: What’s changed in Borth since last time? Nothing! It’s the town preserved in brine. Out beyond the lazy, can-hardly-be-bothered breakers, gannets plunge into water the tone of mercury. On past the fishermen’s cottages, past the mirey mysterious Cors Fochno marsh to Ynyslas dunes, where we park, herring-bone style, on the hard sand of the estuary, the Dyfi river being a faraway trickle across the expanse of sand. The Land Rover next to ours has a windscreen sticker for Evans Farm Supplies on Homer Road; the same merchants we use. On the other side is the plumber from Bacton. Half of Herefordshire might be here, but the towering dunes, with their bristly marram grass, are so vast that we escape through the valleys into a private world, cut off from work-cares by the sea-haze which means anything beyond 20 metres is out of focus… I see myself age nine (wearing a rollneck jumper; it was the pre-fleece 1970s) gathering driftwood on the straight-mile of shoreline, then spotting a coloured Art Deco brooch. But it wasn’t a treasure made by man; scratching away the storm-dumped twigs and grit I uncovered the beak and then the body of a puffin. There was not a mark on its innocent white chest. I had finally laid eyes on a puffin – and it was dead. (Yes, thinking back, that was the moment I became an environmentalist). The memory sticks on the retina. Then again, you need teary salt-tang to better appreciate the sweetness of life… Now I am thirty nine, and we are jumping off the top of the dunes into sand-pits spooned out by the wind. Tris and me are Action-Man flying, Freda fairy-gliding. Our family’s sole companions are the oyster-catchers piping on the liminal shingle in front of us, in the exact place where I found the corpse of the clown-bird. Freda has fits of giggles because her miniature Jack Russell keeps pooing, and she has to dispose of the evidence with her gift-shop spade, which really isn’t quite long enough. A flicker of a squall only creates grey bullet-holes in the golden sand for us to dodge. Penny, wearing a retro roll-neck sweater, is down in the wadi bottom and content because she has found a wind free space for a Primus to blue-burn to make a cup of tea. Ah, but time is running out; we have to catch the tide home. There is one more ritual to observe, however, when we get back in the Land Rover. Years ago: I sat excited on my father’s lap to drive on the compact, wet sand of the estuary. Two years ago, Tris sat on my lap, and drove. Last year, Freda sat on my lap and drove. This year, Freda sits on Tris who sits on me. Layer upon layer.’
Adam Thorpe: ‘Along with a couple of colleagues, back in the 1980s, I brought a group of teenagers from London’s East End, most of whom had never left London. They had never seen so much space. It was October. A huge log was rolling round in the surf. They challenged me to straddle it and paddle out. The sea was freezing. The log was a bucking bronco but somehow I managed to ride it for a minute or so. I have never laughed so much in my life. A few years later, my wife and I brought our new-born sun to look out upon the wondrous natural world. We held him nestling from the wind in the dunes. I remembered my log exploit and the teenagers’ exhilaration. Many years later still, our younger son spent two weeks studying black-headed gulls feeding in the marshes behind those same dunes for his zoology degree. It is a magic stretch of coastline, that now has to absorb a proliferation of huge wind turbines that, ten miles out, look tiny and phantasmal from the beach.’
Philip Marsden: ‘I used to have a 1920s harbour launch with an inboard engine and on calm days, it was possible to nudge into tiny cliff inlets (‘zawn’ in Cornish) that are only accessible from the water. One of these in particular, near St Anthony’s Head on Cornwall’s south coast, I visited a lot one summer, carefully anchoring fore and aft. The snorkeling was wonderful and afterwards, from the boat’s foredeck, I could watch a pair of peregrines work back and forth along the cliffs.’
Richard Askwith: ‘As a runner who loves wild places, I’ve countless happy coastal memories. I think the most golden are from a week’s holiday in Brodie (in a National Trust cottage), a few weeks before my first marathon. My dog and I trained for hours a day on the dunes between the Culbin Forest and the Moray Firth. It was magical: never quite finding the same route twice, utterly absorbed in the environment, with breathtaking views, delicious air, and seals and seabirds for company – and each session ending with the same strange challenge of finding our way back through the vast empty forest to where we were staying. I’ve never felt fitter, or more full of strength and hope.’
Oliver Rackham: ‘Many years ago I was with David Coombe on a stormy day at Kynance on the Lizard Peninsula. The Atlantic waves were crashing into the high cliffs, the sea breaking over Asparagus Island. We conferred with our students by all of us lying down in a circle in the meagre shelter of a Bronze Age barrow, with our heads together in the middle, and bellowing at each other. Had we gone too near the edge we would have been snatched into the air like a fairy by a gust, and never seen again.’
William Atkins: ‘Leaden (like a fisherman’s weight) rather than golden; but memorable: an aborted attempt to race around Devon’s Burgh Island on a day so choppy that front crawl was impossible. Proof that it’s possible to feel (and actually be) seasick whileswimming. Once I’d been plucked out by a lifeguard, I sat wrapped in a tartan blanket drinking sugary mint tea and, like someone’s proud great-aunt, watched the other (triumphant, elated) competitors file across the finish line.’
Tristan Gooley: ‘A couple of years ago, we tried to persuade our two young sons that we needed to go for an afternoon walk along West Wittering beach. It was a cold, wet and very windy day. They had been driving each other and us up the wall for a couple of hours. There were gales outside and a classic winter cabin-fever indoors. Now their energy had found a target and went into angry protests – “Why do we always have to go to the beach! It’s sooo boring!”
I don’t recall whether it was bribery or blackmail that won through in the end – it wouldn’t have been calm reason, that’s for sure.
Anyway we got there. The boys fell grumpily out of the car.
And then the wind hit us. It blew their grumpiness to France. We walked for a minute, leaning into the wind. Then we jumped in some puddles. And then we ran and ran and roared happy defiance at the elements. Weaving in and out of the dunes, we hollered and tumbled and giggled and turned our grins to the rain. We took shelter, huddling in a dune hollow for a minute and then did it all again. We were still out there two hours later, after dark. Their decision.’
Helen Macdonald: ‘It was a homecoming walk along the dunes at Minsmere on a soft March afternoon in 2002. I’d spent nine long months in Idaho at the beginning of the War on Terror and had halfway forgotten the quiet magic of an early English spring. Still horribly jetlagged, I sat down with my back against one of the concrete WWII tank-traps that litter that part of the coast. There was marram grass around me, a sea of pale phragmites reeds before me, and behind them a tracery of distant oaks against the steady blue-grey sky. I shut my eyes, breathed in the soft Suffolk air and fell fast asleep to the sound of skylarks and the steady drag and fall of waves on the beach behind me. Twenty minutes later I woke up in a state of the deepest, calmest joy. It was the most restorative experience imaginable.’
What is your favourite book about the coast/sea?
Joanne Parker: ‘Kathleen Jamie’s Findings – not a book that’s only about the coast, but I love its lyrical descriptions of beaches and of boat trips to the Orkneys (where I now have family) and around the Hebrides (where I spent happy weeks as a student).’
Mark Cocker: ‘Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis if i can have a foreign locale. Or David Thomson’s The People of the Sea if not.’
Philip Walling: ‘The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat’
John Lewis-Stempel: ‘Manka the Sky Gypsy by BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford)’
Adam Thorpe: ‘Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. An extraordinary meditation on time and human littleness which also manages to conjure the interwoven excitements, quarrels and calm pleasures of a family seaside holiday so vividly that by the end you feel like emptying your shoes of sand.’
Philip Marsden: ‘Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban’
Richard Askwith: ‘In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick.’
Oliver Rackham: ‘CM Yonge The Sea Shore 1st edition New Naturalist 1949‘
William Atkins: ‘Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian’ – Moby Dick. Although: W. H. Auden wrote an interesting and little-known essay called ‘The Desert and the Sea’ (in The Enchafèd Flood, or The Romantic Iconography of the Sea), about the Romantics’ preoccupation with both environments, and the similarities between them. ‘The sea,’ he says, ‘is that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilisation has emerged and into which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.’
Tristan Gooley: ‘We the Navigators – The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, by David Lewis’
Helen Macdonald: ‘It’s the 1904 short story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad by MR James, set somewhere that may, or may not be Felixstowe. The North Sea’s strange and foggy yellow-grey waters give the East Anglian coast a particularly eerie atmosphere, and this story captures it perfectly. Parkin’s dreadful nightmare of a figure in pale, fluttering draperies harrying his human quarry – “a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity” between the groynes and sea and the story’s final denoument in a seaside hotel is absolutely terrifying. If you’ve not read it, do so. But when you turn to sleep afterwards, I’d advise you to keep the lights on.‘